As a lover of Russian
poetry a little too ensconced in the Silver Age, I found this a wonderful
collection for a wealth of reasons. The editors act as a formidable team.
Valentina Polukhina, clearly on a mission, provides a highly inclusive
collection of women poets drawn from all parts of the former Soviet Union,
and the Russian Diaspora. Daniel Weissbort, himself a true poet-translator - from
an eclectic mix of translators - gives us high quality translations free of
archaisms, inversions, 'translatese' and the worst forms of artificial metre
and rhyme. The scholarship is also daunting: a superb bibliography, lists of
periodicals, websites, etc, as well intros, prefaces, and essays from various
writers giving a thorough survey of the contemporary Russian scene.
True to the book's egalitarian nature the poets are listed alphabetically.
This allows the reader the fun of rock-climbing without a rope. I was
immediately taken by the rather lovely soft liquidity of Regina Derieva's 'I
don't feel at home where I am' well rendered by Alan Shaw:
counting, there's freedom and calm,
waves, that is, space where, when there,
of pure freedom, which, seen,
Gorgon, the crowd, to stone,
I also enjoyed the Wendy Cope like funny-serious poems of Marina
Boroditskaya. Consider 'Sound Letter', a poem to cheer all those poets
aspiring to top journals:
A minor poet
Is writing to
A voice from
A little pine
tree from the forest,
A clarinet in
the school orchestra.
[translated by Ruth Fainlight]
Finally, Vera Pavlova's 'Grass' stood out because it was one of the few in a
traditional form. Though a little old-fashioned, Maura and Terence Dooley's
translation, with its plain, often monosyllabic, diction combined with the
careful use of alliteration, assonance and rhyme, and regular iambic
tri-meter provides something satisfying:
Oh praise the
that will not
with the lawn
neighborlike, will share
the rain, the air
tall, will hide
bridegroom and the bride.
Yet climbing ropes, have their value and there is nothing to stop the reader
'looking up the answers in the back'. The women in this selection are born
between 1936 and 1981 and there are patterns to be detected. The issue of a
women's anthology is debated at certain points in the book and Yunna Morits
(like Elizabeth Bishop before her) refused to be included. As Weissbort
points out though, the reason for the focus on women was quite pragmatic and
both editors would have liked originally to produce a complete survey of
contemporary Russian poetry. As a collection of women's poetry it is
refreshingly free of the more 'traditionally' female themes: motherhood,
domesticity, and that old 'all men are bastards' chestnut. As Tatyana Bek
says, 'We've all got history on our hands...' Both the Russian experience and
the task of being a poet dominate many of the poems in this volume.
Though Russia acts as the common denominator there are distinct differences
to be detected between the generations. As one might expect, the poetry of
the oldest poets frequently often focuses on imprisonment, repression, and
the suffering history has imposed on the Russian people. There is Elena'
Shvarts's Blockade poem and Natalia Gorbanevskaya's firsthand experience of
imprisonment, for example. However, it is the less well-known writers of the
nineties, marginalized in Russia itself till recently, that the editors are
particularly keen to promote. Dmitry Kuzmin's essay on the samizdat journal
Vavilon does a marvellous job in informing us of the pliead of 'angry young
women' with their 'tendency to convey the fragmented consciousness of the
youthful writer of today swamped by all kinds of information'. Their poetry
is often difficult and but one is more prepared to engage with it when one
understands what they are trying to do. We also see many of these young poets
introducing a feisty urban feel to their poems with references to popular
culture, or just a less 'poetic' language, such as Yana Tokareva's 'Brief
reflection on the greatness of God:
that I'm a
bit blown away by it:
[translated by Daniel Weissbort]
Elsewhere there are young poets following more in the tradition of Akhmatova.
Consider the love poet Negar, conveyed with Richard Mckane's sure touch:
that I opened the door silently,
without knocking enter your fate,
that I lit
the fire but then turned cool,
searched but did not find.
Or the fine lyricism touch of Stella Morotskaya's 'Morning sleep'
than your palms
knees, milk and down duvets
[translated by Vitaly Chernetsky]
There are many other groupings to be detected. Poets of the Diaspora have
different experiences yet again. There are also a number of Jewish poets
inside and outside Russia who deal with anti-Semitism head on. Here Zoya
Ezrokhi does it with a wry sense of humour:
stayed at home,
pogrom against he Jews,
In the name
of Russian Christianity.
pointed its muzzle at the door.
ask," I snapped.
[translated by Daniel Weissbort]
Simon Armitage described the job of being a poet in the west as 'shouting
down the toilet'. Russia has until recently been in a more privileged
position with the bulk of the populace appreciating their poets. Larisa
Miller's 'the light cross of lonely strolls' epitomised for me the attitude
many of these women poets have towards their chosen vocation:
cross of lonely strolls
poems, what's more in Russian
And I don't
want any other workload,
I don't want
any other job.
don't want to shoulder
The time of
year involves me,
The moment of
risk, the hour of the soul...
I sharpen my
pencils with them.
knife or teeth.
In the frail
Where I will
carry my usual cross
backstreet is full
torment of the soul and yearning
For feminine and masculine
[translated by Richard Mckane]
We can only hope that Russians can keep a remnant of the special value that
they have always placed on poetry, but what is certain is that the women
poets writing today are very aware that they belong to such a tradition, and
this is ultimately what makes this such an uplifting volume.
© Belinda Cooke 2005